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Within the next few years the way we experience our vacations will be transformed in remarkable ways.

The alignment of mobile travellersconnected digital services, and smart destinations, creates the potential for truly innovative and industry-disrupting experiences.

The opportunity

1. Travellers are increasingly mobile-only

Today, travellers use a range of devices to get inspired, plan and book their vacations. According to Google, 75% of leisure travellers switch between devices to plan or book their trip.

Once they head to the airport however, the laptops are being left behind by leisure travellers in favour of a smartphone, and a more portable tablet. From the same study from 2014 we see that 85% of pre-trip travel activities are done on desktops or laptops, that drops to 49% once in-destination - and we expect that disparity to increase.

Once in-destination 85% of leisure travellers use their smartphone to complete tasks, and 43% use mobile devices to research and book travel.

In short: the trend is for travellers to be mobile-only.

2. The smartphone is a travel experience hub

As I mentioned in my previous post on wearables and healthcare - the smartphone in our pockets today with it's wide range of apps and OS capabilities acts as a powerful and intelligent "hub", connecting us to a multitude of digital content and experiences.

This hub has incredible potential to connect us to real world experiences immediately, contextually, and with intelligence based our own behaviours and preferences.

Today, travellers have instant access to a wide variety of services to improve real world experiences such as:

  • Google Now, Siri, Uber, Lyft, Opentable, AirBNB, Yelp, and TripAdvisor - to make specific travel decisions in moments, while on the go.
  • Social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest - to seek inspiration and immediate insight from friends and like-minded travellers.

The world is at the our fingertips.

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3. Destinations are getting smarter

Museums and retail have been rapidly adopting proximity-based technologies like BLE Beacons to connect users to highly location-specific features and content to drive increased engagement and sales.

The National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC, piloted the technology to surface relevant content as visitors move around the museum space. While the Brooklyn Museum has been sharing their experiences both good and bad in implementing beacon technology at scale.

Smart things can happen when these devices are connected together and woven into travel experiences by connecting location-based services to the digital hub in your pocket.

Destinations are getting smarter as they become more connected.

Glimpses of the future 

Here’s 6 ways we already see this weaving together of digital hub and sensor experiences happening today:

1. Smart access and simple way-finding

Starwood hotels already provides visitors keyless access through their smartphone (and Apple Watch) instead of the traditional key, or key card.

This will become entirely normal.

Beacon technology combined with existing location services like GPS and IP detection will hand-off to each other to enable seamless transition from way-finding from airport to hotel, to in-hotel navigation, right down to in-room guides and tips.

2. Instant payment and digital passes

Apple Pay & Passbook, Google Wallet and similar technologies, combined with wearable devices like the Apple Watch and proximity-based communication devices like Beacon are all able to help make mobile transactions more seamless.

User urgency is increasing too, in lock-step with the increasingly simplicity of mobile payments. On, for example, over 70% of bookings are for the same day (and most are after 2pm).

Travel retailers are rapidly coming on board from airlines and hotels, to individual experience vendors and this trend will drive up adoption through simplicity and convenience.

3. Recognition and predictive services

By sharing our information with travel partners in this highly contextual, real-time way, we will see a transformation in our basic expectations of customer service.

When we share our information and preferences with trusted brands, through using services, participation in loyalty programs, or repeat interactions; we will begin to anticipate more proactive and predictive customer service. We will expect relevant results by default such as suggested restaurants and local tours that are proactively geared towards our preferences.

Google On Tap and Apple's iOS 9 updates both seek bring this kind of intelligence into our smartphone experiences.

4. Contextual content, and content marketing

Through the connection of these technologies, travel partners with relevant offers and interesting content can be more effectively matched with potential customers in context.

The Rubens House museum in Antwerp is another example of how digital content can augment a location-based experience - highly applicable to wider use in travel and tourism:

Marriot Hotels recently ran an extensive pilot using beacons connected to an iOS app experience:

Guests at times refer to it as a ‘concierge on their phone,’ which speaks to the possibilities for the program.

Beacon technology offers brands an additional way for brands to engage with customers and further personalize their experience.

Sarah Bradley, Director of Rewards Digital Strategy at Marriott International

Behind the scenes the role of the travel marketer is going to shift dramatically away from creating and marketing a single walled-in destination encyclopedia websitesto one of a trusted curator and facilitator of valuable travel experiences.

Advertisers will shift away from one-hit, channel specific advertising and broad, often seasonal targeting, to focusing more on creating valuable micro-content to enhance a visitors' experience.

In turn this content will be increasingly distributed through existing intelligent and contextually-aware delivery platforms (think: Google, Siri, Facebook) - platforms which package up content into a form-factor suitable to the devices to customers that are most likely to value it.

This is a major shift in the advertising creative production mindset and again this opens the door to some incredible innovation potential. The concept and approaches to non-linear storytelling are explored in this fascinating article by Senongo Akpem

5. Connected technologies powering connected experiences

Once we see sensors and device communication intertwined with mass-audience devices and apps, the door opens for ridiculously smart "concierge" services for everyone.

Disney has always been a leader in customer experience delivery, and their Magic Band is the latest in a line of customer-centric innovations that set the current gold standard for combining sensors and user insights to create great experiences.

 Once again, we have a digital “hub” that is augmented and enabled by the wearable Magic Band that users swipe against on-site sensors. The technology is all tied into a smart back-end system that delivers the capability for park visitors to access rides, plan ahead to jump lines, access deals, see more relevant experiences, and share their experiences in real-time. It’s a truly amazing, connected experience. And it makes Disney money.

In the peak December holiday period, the introduction of MyMagic+ led to around 3,000 additional visitors per day to Magic Kingdom, Disney’s most popular theme park.


Yet I suspect this will look like a rather crude prototype even within the next few years as multitude of dumb sensors proliferate, algorithmic data crunchers connect the dots to serve up recommendations, and designers add predictive intelligence to their applications to delight us in ever more imaginative ways.

6. Evolved privacy controls to enable smarter experiences

Consider how Snapchat today allows users to share images that are erased from existence seconds later.

Imagine being able to do a similar thing with your personal data - opening up an invisible and temporary "privacy bubble" around you that lets you share certain information with trusted partners for a controlled duration, after which the bubble “pops” and access to your data is revoked, leaving no trace.

  • Travellers might temporarily share their location and flight information with the airport in return for the anticipated time it’ll take to get through security to the gate. This data could be aggregated from many users to help airports more accurately staff-up during busy times.
  • Business travellers might share a limited view of their travel calendar with a hotel to co-ordinate transportation, laundry delivery services and a customized spa around meetings.

How to build trust with users, and how to implement this kind of temporary contextual privacy agreement behind the scenes will be a major challenge for businesses and government policymakers. But what we do know is that where there's desire and value, the services will follow. The possibilities, implications and guiding principles of contextual privacy are explored in detail in the work of Helen Nissenbaum, and this concept is steadily gaining traction as a potential for new business opportunities and differentiation.

In short, the evolution of our privacy into a kind of personal currency we can decide to trade for goods and services is already underway. 

Designing the future of travel

All this technology exists today. It’s really just a matter of time, strategic vision, and design iteration to connect the dots and meet the needs of the future traveller.

[Marriot] is making changes to its approach to customer experience by accounting for a predicted 76% increase in consumers ages 18 to 40 within six years.

Marriot representative, The State of Mobile Commerce 2014

While many of the technologies are still in early stages of adoption, lacking interoperability standards and offering clumsy accessibility and other limitations; all predictions point to a highly connected future ahead.

Designing connected experiences

In approaching design for these kinds of connected experiences, the fundamentals are largely the same, with some subtle differences.

Remember that the technology is just the enabler - successful connected experiences will focus on serving un-met user needs.

  • Understand your users
    Map your customers' journey over time, understand their motivations and challenges. Gather qualitative research insights and combine them with quantitative data to highlight areas for improvement, and where improvements can drive the most business value.
  • Explore opportunities for contextual enhancement 
    Consider how a users' changing context (location, social situations, environment, motion, time, etc.) might be used to trigger events to occur or for valuable content to be delivered. Understanding Context by Andrew Hinton offers a comprehensive exploration of designing contextual experiences. Focus on delivering valuable content and experiences.
  • Build your data strategy early
    Plan for the data you need from customers and their devices, when and how you will use it, and what you plan to do with it afterward. Building trust is critical, as is clearly show the value on offer in exchange for a users' contextual information. Consider what other data sources you need to bring together. Involve your information management team and technical staff early in the design process as privacy and data management implications (and costs) can swiftly escalate with so many potential interdependencies. Start simple.
  • Co-design, but keep it simple with rapid prototyping
    Generate ideas with cross-functional teams (customer service teams, the business heads and designers) - connected experiences will weave a path all over your internal silos. Test ideas quickly and often to weed out issues with customers before taking anything to scale. While beacons and similar technologies are relatively inexpensive, there's a lot to go wrong with so many separate elements working together in real-time (movement, delays, unstable connectivity, physical damage or interference, and a lack of standards for interoperability for example). Just build the minimum viable product.
  • Design the business operation alongside the customer experience
    The technology infrastructure is almost certainly the easy bit. Consider the staff and processes behind the scenes, the technology connectivity to enable the services, and the support and governance required to keep things running smoothly. Disney invested over $1bn in the whole magic band ecosystem, involving over 1000 people and taking several years to develop and finely tune all aspects of the experience before it was ever launched to the public. Run pilot projects first.

Travel, tourism and hospitality companies who take the time to understand their visitors - their needs and wants, their stories and history - will be the ones to find new ways to delight us with more streamlined experiences and moments of delight.

I spend the majority of my time with clients - many of them in the travel, tourism & hospitality space - working to help draw insights from their customers and their data to design new ways to make their lives better, and in turn drive business growth and loyalty.

In my view there’s never been a more exciting time to be working in digital customer experience design - The pieces are all there to design the future of travel experiences.

By Warren Anthony

Warren is a design leader working to improve our experiences with products, services and systems by putting people first. He leads the Experience Design practice at EY Vancouver, working with clients including the City of Vancouver, the Government of Canada and Microsoft. He's an active contributor as part of EY's Global Future Consumer and Future Cities teams. In previous lives he led strategy, UX and digital design teams at DDB London and FCV Vancouver scooping major awards for work with Hasbro, Volkswagen and Philips.